Johnson v. Milford Acad.

Decision Date12 October 2018
Docket NumberDOCKET No.SC2018-23307
Citation67 Misc.3d 1206 (A),125 N.Y.S.3d 836 (Table)
Parties Julia JOHNSON, Plaintiff v. MILFORD ACADEMY and William Chaplick, Defendant
CourtNew York City Court

Plaintiff by Julia Johnson, Pro Se

Defendant by Harlem & Jervis, Alicia C. Rohan, Esq. appearing

Michael J. Genute, J.

Background

Plaintiff filed a claim against defendants on June 7, 2018, in the amount of $5,000.00, alleging that she was entitled to a tuition refund after enrolling her son in Milford Academy beginning in August of 2017. The basis of her claim is that her son was the subject of several bullying incidents, that there was a lack of proper supervision, that her son was seriously injured, and that he withdrew from the program because he did not feel safe, and that the defendant could not assure the plaintiff that they had the ability to protect her son in the future. The plaintiff's request for a tuition refund was denied by the defendants.

The plaintiff, her son, Craig Lea, and Craig's uncle, Carl Lea, testified on the plaintiff's direct case. Craig's aunt, Shelley Lea, and the plaintiff testified for the plaintiff as rebuttal witnesses. The plaintiff introduced a picture of her son's face having obvious and fresh lacerations, a video that was captured on Snapchat, which was posted on social media by another player from the Academy, a grade report, letter from her son's counselor, and a group of tax return documents the plaintiff had procured from the internet and which defendant did not deny were filed on behalf of the Academy. With the exception of the video, all of the exhibits were received into evidence.

The defendants introduced 5 witnesses: Eli Fields, Coaches Lamar Stewart, Kenneth Tinney, Myles Davis, and defendant, William Chaplick. They also introduced one document, an "Application Agreement", which was received into evidence.

Testimony and Evidence
Plaintiff's Case

The crux of the plaintiff's case was made out by Craig. While the plaintiff testified about observations she made of Craig, along with communications she had with the staff at the Academy, Craig testified to his personal experiences that led him to leave the Academy. In this regard, Craig testified to three specific, personal situations, which resulted in a physical altercation.

In the first instance, which took place about two weeks after enrolling at the Academy on August 10, 2017, Craig explained that another player, within a group of 12-15 students who typically wreaked havoc in the evenings, had broken into his dorm room and dumped a large bucket of water on his bed. The player who dumped water on his bed went to the gym with the expectation that the two would fight. Craig followed the player to the gym, throwing a bucket of water at him, and the two fought. As his head was bleeding, Craig was done fighting, but the other student pursued him to the vicinity of their dorm rooms and struck Craig additional times in the head before the fight was broken up. No coaches were present during this altercation, and despite believing he needed stitches, Craig went to bed. The following day, Coach Chaplick observed the defendant's face and made arrangement to take Craig to the hospital after practice, which led to Craig receiving 18 stitches on his face. Coach Chaplick told the team that there would be no more fighting or everyone would get kicked out of the Academy.

In the second incident, which Craig testified took place about two weeks after the first, he explained that the wide receivers, him being one of them, were confused about weight training and missed a morning workout. As a punishment, the whole team had to run on the hill. According to Craig, a defensive tackle ran down the hill at full speed and hit Craig as Craig was talking to another teammate. While Craig was on the ground, the defensive tackle began swinging punches at him before another teammate pulled the player off of Craig. As a result of this incident, the right side of Craig's face was swollen. Craig testified that the coaches came down from the top of the hill when the altercation took place and told the players to stop.

In a third incident, Craig testified that his roommate asked him to pick up a western union payment from his roomate's father at Walmart. Craig explained that he could not do it immediately because he was out with some other teammates. In response, the roommate stated that "I would have done it for you; you'll have to fight me when I get back." Upon Craig's return to the campus, Craig testified that his roommate ran down the hall towards him and body slammed him to the floor. After several minutes, the altercation was eventually broken up by another teammate. Craig explained that this last incident took place before the Yale game towards the end of September and that Craig, along with other players, went home after that game.

Following this last incident, Craig was moved into the only dorm room on the first floor. He stayed there for one night and, feeling that his circumstances were not going to improve by being isolated from the other players, did not return after the Yale game.

Craig also spoke of a situation that was documented on Snapchat and which was recorded by the plaintiff. According to Craig — and based upon viewing the video in court on Craig's phone without objection by either party, which unfortunately could not be saved as an exhibit — an encounter took place in a dorm room where a group of students dumped a Gatorade sized bucket of water on another student's bed. The targeted student then dumped a bucket of water in the hallway in an act of retaliation, challenging others to clean it up. Following a melee in the dorm room, where the two particular students engaged by boxing and wrestling with each other, the brawl resumed in the gym, where the two students further engaged in hand to hand combat with a large group of players circled around the two who were fighting. Craig explained that such occurrences were the norm, rather than isolated incidents at the Academy before he withdrew.

Amongst these specific incidents addressed by Craig, he also testified to players shooting bb guns throughout the campus, explaining that they were comparable to the very hard shooting air-soft guns. Craig also stated that a group of 12-15 students regularly barged into rooms dumping water filled Gatorade buckets on players' beds before retreating to the gym for a fight between the offender and the targeted player — similar in fashion to his first confrontation, which led to his needing stitches. While Craig testified that Coach Stewart told the players that they would be in trouble if he found any more bb guns, Craig denied that there was ever any player-specific discipline for the incidents about which he testified.

On cross, Craig refused to acknowledge that he was bullied, instead stating that he "would use the word "chosen." Craig otherwise acknowledged having positive communications with Coach Tinney and Ms. Solomon (his guidance counselor), about these circumstances, and that the coaching staff offered the solution of moving his dorm room to the first floor.

Carl Lea (Craig's uncle), also testified, stating that Craig wanted to stay home after returning from the Yale game and Carl also recalled a conversation with one of the Academy coaches, who denied that Craig had any notable behavioral issues.

Defendants' Response

None of the Academy's witnesses contradicted any information shared by Craig, in terms of the confrontations he experienced or the events that were documented through Snapchat. If anything, the Academy's witnesses verified the types of behaviors that were described by Craig. In fact, Coach Chaplick explained that the students have to find a way to have some fun, as there is not much for them to do outside of the school, testifying that players will have wars between floors, such as using super soakers, raiding each other with buckets of water, and similar shenanigans, also confirming that fighting is not uncommon at the beginning, because "that is how they are." Though he refuted that Craig was still enrolled at the Academy when events documented on Snapchat took place, Eli Fields (student at the Academy) provided a very similar narration (as Craig did) of what took place.

Throughout the testimony provided by the Academy's witnesses, there were several of the following types of references towards the culture at the Academy: "boys will be boys"; there is "a lot of testosterone"; players like to "fool around" with each other; that's "how they have fun"; the problems that do arise typically take place when the coaches are asleep; they "can't see everything all the time"; "(they) can't deal with a problem until it happens." In fact, Coach Stewart commented that "manliness plays a role in relationships" at the Academy, and one might have too much pride to admit what they are feeling, as the players do not want to show their weaknesses. Coach Stewart even agreed that players have left the Academy over having manliness issues, noting that "they can't make it because of their peers." There was specific testimony from Coaches Stewart and Chaplick that the Academy loses about 5 students every year, but he explained that this typically took place due to players becoming homesick, because they break the rules of the Academy, or because they do not come properly prepared for the rigors of the program.

Interestingly, both Eli and Coach Stewart either denied that there was discipline or did not have any recollection of discipline resulting from any of the documented physical altercations at the Academy. Coaches Tinney and Chaplick, however, contradicted this testimony, explaining in notable detail how discipline resulted in each case where Craig was involved in physical altercations. Both coaches explained that the students involved in each involvement with Craig was either suspended for a game, kicked out of the Academy, and/or stripped of being a...

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